Bim Afolami: MPs’ plight. Trolls, terrorists and thugs account for much of it. But some our problems are of our own making.

18 Oct

I didn’t know Sir David Amess well. He was a kindly man, always willing to offer a wise word, give a needed piece of advice, or do a quick favour. He was a real presence, and one who was loved by those who worked for him; it is a sign of genuine decency when a politician is loved by his staff (which is not a given in politics, I can assure you). His death has made a real impact on me and my colleagues.

This is not just because MPs look at the unrelenting, knackering, 24/7 nature of the job, and consider whether they want their life to be on the line as well. For me, it raises the fundamental question: what is the value of being an MP and does the public, and do MPs themselves recognise that value? What is the point of it?

First of all, one must be so careful not to use one person’s vicious attack on Sir David as indicative of the public’s views of politicians. The vast majority of people are decent and kind.

However, even a cursory look at social media shows some very nasty views out there, held by more people than we should feel comfortable about. Rhetoric and words matter to the mental wellbeing of MPs, but they can also turn into threatening behaviour and violence.

I have had a few tough moments in my constituency, but my female colleagues get it much worse. I know well over a dozen who have had stalkers, or else attackers who have been sent to jail, as in the cases of Rosie Duffield, Nadine Dorries, Luciana Berger, Joanna Cherry, Rushanara Ali and Rebecca Pow (I could go on and on).

Though many, myself included, lay a lot of the blame on social media companies that mystifyingly refuse to take more action on threatening language online, I don’t think that they are the entirety of the problem.

The more fundamental issue is that the role of an MP in our society has gradually been diminished, and is still diminishing. People feel freer to treat us in an appalling way if they regard us as illegitimate and not worthy of respect. Too many members of the public either do not know or care about our role in a democratic society and the work that we do. That presents us with some real problems. It is harder to try and lead the public through difficult, long term political challenges unless you have the permission and authority from the public to do so.

Despite the above, much of the reason why MPs have gradually lost our position and place in our society is the fault of MPs themselves. Yes, our fault. Why? We continually fail to advocate for the importance and good in what we do, and we often fall short of the highest ethical standards. If we don’t really believe in the importance of what we do, why should the public?

There are many structural improvements that need to be made to the way we do our politics. MPs need to stand up for the value of Parliament and of spending time there improving and working on legislation. That means arguing more with whips and the Government for proper time to do real work and debate issues on the floor of the house, and where select committees highlight how things need to improve, work harder to get sensible measures adopted.

It means advocating at a constituency level for parliamentary work (bills, committees, debates) just as much as the Liberal Democrat-style councillor politics that everybody feels the need to do.

It means defending yourself and colleagues (on both sides) when they are attacked by the public in an unfair way: we can disagree with the policies of our opponents but accept that they have a sincere point of view, and that should be expressed publicly.

It means saying that if we want more capable politicians who have actually achieved something outside Westminster before getting elected, we should at least pay MPs what a GP earns: as they do in the USA, Germany, France, Canada, or Australia.

However, in order to do this, MPs will need to be strong. We need to adhere to higher standards in lots of ways. The Commons should reverse most of the Blair-era changes and sit for longer, which would give more time for meetings and select committees in the mornings, and allow debates on bills to be much more substantive.

Proper time for debate would also reduce the number of terrible three or four minute time-limited bilge that often passes for parliamentary speeches these days. MPs’ personal expenses need to be much simpler and cut down, although, as I have already said, MPs’ basic salary should be raised at the same time. We need to persuade the Government to allow more discussion about policy formation both within the Party and in Parliament, thereby making it a much more open process. We need to find ways to encourage those who have already held high office to stay in parliament for longer, so that our political system can benefit from their expertise, which would take away a growing sense that the public have (rightly) that many politicians want to treat politics as a job, to be cashed in on later, rather than a life and a vocation.

Theresa May has been admirable in how she has acted as a former Prime Minister: Blair, Brown and Cameron much less so. We need to actively support the newer media outlets like (in addition to ConHome) Reaction, UnHerd or CapX  that actually try and publish analysis and news of real political issues, rather than the nonsense, unsourced briefing and tittle-tattle that we usually see in the mainstream press.

The reaction to Sir David’s death has been heartening in many ways. When the news broke, I was door knocking with one of my councillors in my constituency. At almost every door, people made a point of remarking upon it, said that they were thinking of me, and that they hoped I was OK. (It was one of our strongest wards, after all!)

So many people do recognise the good that politics can do, and how we need it to be better. But those of us in politics need to stand up for it, including the media. Or the sensible, sane, sagacious people we need won’t go into it; leaving the field for rogues and incompetents, which will increase the downward spiral.

The pursuit of power to change the world in positive ways is a noble calling. As Theodore Roosevelt said in 1905:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”